On luck

I bit down on a fork last week and slightly chipped a tooth, which seemed like a good reminder that I should find myself a dentist in New York. Not knowing where to turn, I started at my insurance company’s page, which had a list of nearby approved dentists … and literally found myself a dentist, in the form of one Benjamin Schwartz DDS, with an office in midtown. For the sake of comedy, and in the name of luck, I felt compelled to go.

He confirmed that the chip was irrelevant, but with some help from a high-resolution dental camera he did manage to spot a cavity … my first. It seems my luck has run out.

He said it was very superficial, so he could likely treat it without even local anesthesia. I don’t know whether to feel pleased or scared.

Improvisation

I had promised to show the Oscars tonight, so it was a real problem this afternoon when I discovered that I couldn’t tune WABC-TV for more than a few seconds without it dissolving into a mess of block noise.  It worked better if I taped the antenna up in one corner of my window, but still not well enough to be watchable.

I looked up the frequency for WABC-TV: Channel 7, so 177 MHz.  1.7 meter wavelength.  Then I grabbed my Leatherman, a tape measure, and a spare coax cable, and improvised a resonant dipole antenna for that frequency, leaving bits of aluminum shielding scattered across the floor.  That was better, but still not quite good enough until I taped it to a piece of cardboard and stuck it out the window at a particular angle.

There were still a few garbled words and corrupted frames over the course of the show, but it pretty much worked.  Physics!

image

Disposal

After acquiring beaded necklaces by the kilo during the parades, we were faced with the challenge of disposing of them. Sure, you could dump them in the trash, but we don’t like to make things that easy, and so we set ourselves the task of giving them all away before the end of Mardi Gras. We made a good dent by tossing them off our balcony to all and sundry, but that left a sizable stash with only hours to spare. After some consideration, we came up with a plan: go to Bourbon Street, and just hand them out. After all, Bourbon is jammed with people who are jumping up and down clamoring for beads.

This actually worked amazingly well. We handed out dozens of necklaces in minutes, declared victory, and went home.

After resting up for a few hours, we walked back to Bourbon to witness the official end of Mardi Gras, in the form of a phalanx that rolled down the street, featuring the mayor, police chiefs, foot patrol, horseback police, street sweepers, a street sprayer machine (which covered the tarmac in suds), and even a specially equipped front-loader for clearing beads. Some of the bars kicked everyone off the balconies for the event, but the bars stayed open, and as soon as the procession rolled past, the mayhem was back in action … maybe reinvigorated.

We took the police’s suggestion literally, and went home.

Mardi Gras

It’s Mardi Gras.

Yesterday, which is generally known as Lundi Gras, we slept in, ate well, wandered, and relaxed. In the evening, it rained. I put on my warmest waterproof jacket and beads, and walked through the rain to find the Krewe of Robyn, which held a minimally organized dance-parade-party in the rain through the historic district, with a pedal-driven sound system at its heart. Hundreds of people danced through the potholed street and turned the cold misery into pure joy. I’d never heard of Robyn before, but it appears that I am a fan.

Today was Mardi Gras itself, the moment we’d all been waiting for. I put on my wing suit and we wandered out toward Marigny, in search of a Chewbacchan walking parade that never materialized. After lunch I tore off the tentacles to assume my final form, as a masked angel. We wandered back through the mayhem until mid-afternoon, and made some observations

  • It was cold — in the low 40s, breezy, and cloudy (or just shadowed) for most of the day — so very few dared to venture out less than fully clothed (which is always an option at Mardi Gras).
  • Royal St. was where the action was. During the day, Royal was absolutely packed with a kaleidoscope of fabulously costumed individuals and groups (including children), when it wasn’t completely blocked by even more fabulous foot parades large and small.
  • Bourbon St. was packed, lame, and boring. Almost no one was in costume, and everyone was just hanging around trying to catch stuff being thrown by people on the balconies, who were being obnoxious (as is traditional) to an extraordinary degree. I saw one young woman shouting her obscene demands down to the crowd below through a megaphone.

In late afternoon I struck out my own. I headed to Bourbon St., and attempted to collect beads from the lecherous balconies, by getting their attention and then performing the wing-reveal on my costume, with some success … although the most debauched balconies were surrounded by crowds too thick to unfurl 8-foot wings. Then I headed back down to Royal and crouched in the folded position by the side of the street in a few places, surprising passersby as they passed. Tons of pictures were taken, and I got enough memorable positive reactions to give anybody a big head. Some people thought I was busking for beaded necklaces (the valueless currency of Mardi Gras), and so I collected about as many as I could carry before I stopped.

After about 6 PM, Royal St. was trailing off. I suppose the locals must have work, or school, tomorrow. I can still hear occasional delighted screaming now, and a lone clarinet, but the party seems to be over.

It was a lot of fun.

Meander

Can I even remember it all? We started in the French Quarter and walked toward Bywater,

  • grabbed coffee at the Orange Couch, which is what coffee shops would look like if they were designed by Apple
  • Stopped in for lunch at Booty’s Street Food, which sells small portions of unhealthy food for high prices
  • peered in to the Ironworks Sno-ball, which was closed despite the sign indicating that it ought to be open
  • crossed the astounding footbridge into Crescent Park
  • wandered East toward the Bacchanal wine bar
  • got waylaid by an old woman in costume who advised us to visit a local voodoo alley and an artist space
  • walked down a very creepy voodoo alley, mostly on account of Dia de Los Muertos-style painting on the fences
  • were told off by a stern man dressed like a 1930s gangster for being on private property
  • walked to Bacchanal
  • hung out in the courtyard drinking wine, eating cheese, and listening to a jazz quartet with a female trumpeter, in the shadow of the defunct Navy shipyard
  • walked back to the artist residence, where some sort of loud logistical discussion was happening, and decided this would be better if it were daytime or we knew that old woman’s name
  • bumped into the Krewe of Heiress, an extra-anarchist offshoot of the already-anarchist Krewe of Eris, who were firing off fireworks in the middle of the street while chilling out waiting to start parading
  • walked to the St. Roch Firehouse, whose garage is now a performance space, and bought tickets to a show
  • dashed out to the nearest Vietnamese restaurant and dive bar for food
  • walked in to find the place well-filled but eerily quiet, because everyone in both rooms was watching The Walking Dead on big screens in rapt silence
  • quietly grabbed our Banh Mi and raced back to the Firehouse in time for Cirque du Gras, an old-timey circus that featured fire-breathing, whip tricks, and a fat man getting a tattoo on his ass-cheek while singing quite good opera with a three-piece orchestra

Hare Cthulhu

I can’t tell the story of this trip without talking about the wings.

Once I found out that I was going to be in New Orleans near Mardi Gras, I figured I might as well stay there for Mardi Gras proper. Then I read up on Mardi Gras, and learned that “No self-respecting New Orleanian will walk out of his or her door on Mardi Gras morning without a costume.“. When in Rome, do as the Romans do… so I started thinking about costumes.

I tried to think of a costume that would combine elements from Mardi Gras’s Catholic foundations with my personal interests and sense of style. Ultimately, I decided to be an angel, in a white robe, with a white mask, golden belt, and a big pair of articulated silver wings.

I watched every video and read every Instructable on the internet about costume wings … and then eventually discarded them all, and designed my own from scratch. My construction uses a pair of pulleywheels in a 2:1 ratio, connected by a figure-8 loop that’s double-wrapped on the small wheel and pinned on both. It fits in a standard checked bag when folded, and has an eight-foot wingspan when open. It’s actuated by a hidden pullstring tied to one shoe, which allows me to open the wings even when my hands are full, to surprise the audience.

Of course, once I had the design, I had to actually build it. To do that, I stopped by Canal Street Plastics for silver sheeting, and then took the train home to Connecticut one Friday afternoon before a snowstorm. I spent the whole weekend in the workshop with my dad, who provided the woodworking equipment, materials, and expertise that made it possible to actually build this thing. I did a lot of the grunt work, like cutting 14 different wooden circles on the bandsaw, but when finesse was required, it was his steady hand on the power drill.

Once it was built, and covered in silver sheeting (carefully taped into “airfoils” that would interdigitate appropriately when folding), it was Sunday evening, and time to head back to the city.

In New York, armed with pictures of the thing, I e-mailed The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, which is the Mardi Gras organization for nerds, and asked if I could join. They were incredibly welcoming, and suggested I join the Krewe-Thulhu subkrewe, which was rolling with a “Hare Krishna Cthulhu” theme this year. I converted my masked-angel costume into a Cthulhu-angel costume, by taping some posterboard tentacles to the mask.

On Saturday, I walked from our hotel to the staging area for the Chewbacchus parade. It was highly costumed mayhem, with a warehouse full of extravagant rolling art forms. It’s hardly possible to summarize, but I think the two-story-high cloud-whale, golf cart full of men dressed identically as Carl Sagan, and platoon of perfect Ghostbusters give you the general idea.

It was just about the warmest, friendliest experience of my life. By the time the parade started, none of us were strangers anymore.

I walked through the whole parade scaringdelighting small children with my wings, and generally having a blast.

It looked like this:


(Thanks for taking the pictures, Mom!)

Big Freedia

Five years ago, when I was a regular New York Times reader, I read an article about Big Freedia, a rapper from a New Orleans-based subgenre known as Bounce who is also sort of a drag queen. When a friend suggested that we go to a show while we were down here, I recalled the article and agreed to go along, in the interest of seeing Important Phenomena.

In the intervening five years, the nature of Big Freedia’s fame has changed. Most importantly, the world has recently learned about twerking, a dance type popularized by Miley Cyrus in 2013, but which has been a mainstay of Bounce (and especially of Big Freedia herself) for decades. Big Freedia even holds a Guinness World Record related to twerking.

The New York Times article suggests that Big Freedia’s singing voice resembles Chuck D’s. I have no idea who that is, but I would compare her deep bass tone to Andre the Giant. (The vocal distortion effects probably didn’t hurt.)

The show technically started at 10, but when we got there a few minutes later the less-than-cavernous club was very sparse. We did notice a man and woman engaged in a friendly twerking competition on the dance floor.

We went to catch a parade, and came back an hour later (covered in beads).

EDIT: That was the Muses parade, which features a sexy attitude, black comedy, and a stiletto fixation, and draws an enormous crowd. I just learned that two people were shot and killed during that parade, on the same street where the parade was marching. This is a troubled city!

The other artists in the lineup were performing their Bounce music (at ear-splitting volume as usual; I wore earplugs). We saw about four performers before Big Freedia. Some had brought professional twerking specialists with them to perform during songs. Other had classic hype-men, or spastic male dancers who danced the way I did as a child, before I learned to be self-conscious. Some invited men and women of all ages and shapes from the audience to twerk on the stage, either singly or in groups.

I was amazed to see that a substantial fraction of the audience, especially white women, knew all the unmentionable lyrics by heart … and not just the lyrics, but even the structure of the audience call-and-response between the songs. (If you looked closely you could also spot, here and there, a nerd wearing earplugs, a studious expression, and business casual.)

By the time Big Freedia came on it was about 2 AM, on a Thursday night, and everyone was pretty beat. Judging by the Times article’s quoted lyrics, her songs haven’t changed much in many years. Most of the songs have such a fast tempo that it’s hard to dance to them in any way other than twerking, and only a minority of the audience had the commitment (or room) to do so. Everyone had come to see Big Freedia, but by the time she and her crew of backup dancers came on, the show was clearly past its prime.

My take: Big Freedia’s innovations, both in show style and music, have been adopted and evolved by the rest of the world of Bounce. Today, she’s the biggest name in Bounce (at least outside of New Orleans), but she’s no longer the vanguard.

Drama

As usual, there’s too much going on, no time to write. Maybe when I’m back I’ll have time to sum up some of what’s happened … although this trip isn’t even half over.

Hmm.

Anyway, some events are self-contained. Like last night, when we came back from the jazz club to our AirBnB … and were turned away at the last block by a police officer, who told us that there was a gunman and we should leave post haste. We went to another apartment and camped out, trying to make sense of the bewildering moment, with some help from the local newspaper. Eventually, we found an accommodating officer on the far edge of the controlled zone who let us walk in. The standoff ended just as I was falling asleep, with the discovery that the gunman/hostage had killed himself.

In the process of finding the articles for this, I discovered that while police were distracted with this incident, a different man was shot and killed a few blocks away.

Now I know why this neighborhood is the subject of a popular new drama from HBO.

Next stop NOLA

12 hours from now I’ll be in a new, strange city. If my luggage survives airline baggage check, I’ll be equipped with enough computing power, socks, masks, and custom-built costume equipment to last three men for three months. I’ll try to remember to take pictures.

Like information, but less informative